Overweening Generalist

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Time of Useful Consciousness

The Irish/Anglican empirical philosopher and guerrilla ontologist Bishop George Berkeley (b.1685, same year as Bach/Handel/Scarlatti) said "Westward the course of empire takes its way...," and later, in far West California in the 19th century, a man named Frederick Billings, knowing Berkeley's line,  suggested "Berkeley" as the name for a college site, 1866, but perhaps this is all immaterial. (<---I hope at least one of you enjoyed what I did right there.)

Time of Useful Consciousness

In aeronautical lingo, the "time of useful consciousness" is the period between when your oxygen runs out and you go into unconsciousness. The hypoxia zone is in your cabin and you are in a life or death situation, high in the sky. You have a brief window of time in which to save yourself. Ferlinghetti, writing as well as he ever has at age 93 (!), thinks the world is at a similar point, and in less then 100 pages he's written a stream-of-American historical consciousness (and, it would seem to me: a skimming in the collective unconsciousness, the paideuma, if only by inhabitation of the territory over the course of a long poem), accelerando, the form somewhere between Eliot and cummings, and latter-day historically-minded American bards Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson. (I consider Pound's similar project as far more expansive and taking the stream of consciousness of "humanity" as its subject OR: The Tale of the Tribe.) Let us consider Ferlinghetti's work here - and the book follows in wake of his earlier Americus vol I - to be telling fragmented shards of the Unistatian Tale?

But Ferlinghetti's work here is tight and a delight, if mostly Whitmanic, then waxing desperation, with a final-moment culminating in a Whitmanesque yea-saying, seemingly, if only because it's such a drag to dwell on the possibility of whimper-not-a-bang apocalypse, brought on by a collected willful ignorance.

Ferlinghetti, at the end of his poem, having moved structurally from East to West, and gotten darker with the skies and cars and Narcissistic Net, shouts:

Enough! Enough!
Enough of this "loud lament of the disconsolate chimera"
in some waste land of our impoverished imagination.

He then seems to plaintively ask for Whitman's presence: isn't there still hope? And as the poem draws to a close:

Walt Whitman, you should be living at this hour!
Optimist of humanity en masse

Why? His bardic love for Whitman...is Ferlinghetti saying, "I wonder if you could still 'Sing in the West' in a culture of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the North Pole as a lake?" Or maybe: "Your type of loving optimism is needed now more than ever; if you can't show up I'll take your place, but know this, Walt: this is some serious shit we're dealing with here, now."?

In nine sections, we inhabit the Mind of the "hinternation," then "sailing westward/from the crenellated old world/of over-age Camembert Europe --/millions wash up on virgin shores/bright with promise"

Rarely have I read poetic lines more exuberant about the good of immigrants, and Einstein, Kerouac, Chomsky, W.E.B. Dubois, Emma Goldman, Zinn, Sacco and Vanzetti, and even Jim Jarmusch make it in here, along with other Unistatian "types" from far-flung lands. Chomsky and Zinn:

With other immigrants causing caustic critiques
of the American Way of Life
like Noam Chomsky
with a father from the Ukraine
and a mother from Belarus
and Howard Zinn rewriting history and herstory
with a father from Austria-Hungary
and a mother from Siberia

Then the impact of the Iron-Horse railroads on Unistatian consciousness, then a brief section on Chicago, which I loved. I hadn't known anything about the Dil Pickle Club, but now I want to read an entire book about it:

And on Near North Side Chicago
in a shack of a barn in broken-down Tooker Alley
the Dil Pickle Club (with one "l")
the hobohemian nightspot
after its glorious beginnings
in 1916 or thereabouts
didn't close 'til the 1960s
a place where everybody and everything was anti
"the flaming crater of Chicago's revolution in the Arts"
frequented early-on by the likes of
Big Bill Haywood Eugene Debs Emma Goldman
and Mother Jones

Aye, and James T. Farrell, Harriet Monroe, Vachel Lindsay, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Studs Terkel, Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, and Nelson Algren, who apparently had had some interesting fling with Simone de Beauvoir in Paris that I need to look into.

And Thorsten Veblen drank the bitter drink alright

Ferlinghetti actually took a trip down the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana, and, like the River and its own stream and Huck and Tom and Twain and their place in the consciousness of Unistat, it appears near the middle of the book:

But it ain't the river of Mark Twain's dream
the pre-coal river, the ancient dreamin' river
Ask the river pilots and they'll tell you
The river towns all dying
all the way down
(home-towns boarded-up
all over America
stamped out by shopping malls
on nearby Interstates

I guess Lawrence couldn't bring himself to include the noun Wal-Mart in his sounding.

Section 8 of the poem completely floored me. It's not only a companion to Allen Ginsberg's writings on Moloch, but it's strongly reminiscent of Ezra Pound's "Hell" Cantos. And now the poem has moved to the Unistatian southwest and especially Las Vegas and the gangster-cowboy mind. In this sense, the poem contributes in a sense to Peter Dale Scott's writings on Nixon, Watergate, and the Mafia. It also seems to speak in a bardic way to Carl Oglesby's The Yankee and Cowboy War. I feel compelled to quote from this chapter at length, but will resist, as I wouldn't be able to stop and I've probably already skirted the fringes of Fair Use. Read this chapter - the longest one in the book, pp.45-61 - if only for the conjuring powers of a 93 year old Bard! Uncanny...

Neurogeographically the poem ends in San Francisco, across the Bay from Berkeley. And Ferlinghetti's famous bookstore City Lights is there, but...after a celebration of the Mind of the City, the trope of loneliness sets in. Sadness, homelessness, alienation, the Mind of Unistat in the 21st century. And Ferlinghetti came of age during the 1939-45 War. And so, in the City most associated with "progress" in the digital revolution:

It was still high noon in America
until along came the digital revolution
fated to destroy or ingest
all the age-old cultures
of the world
in a World Wide Web
of globalization
in an Ayn Rand projection
of world domination

Well, yes of course you'd say that: you're 93, a poet, and owner of a bookstore that still thrives somehow. (I admit some resonant sympathy here, relatively young cuss that I seem.)

At 5 o'clock the rush to the freeway to burn home to loneliness just bums and worries Ferlinghetti. As does what I call our Earthquake Ritual, but he puts it like this:

The bedsprings quake
on the San Andreas Fault
The dark land broods
Look in my eye, look in my eye
the cyclops tv cries
It blinks and rolls its glassy eye
and shakes its vacuum head
over the shaken bodies
in the bed

Possibly I make this rapid shutter-speed trip through Unistatian historical consciousness as a bad trip, and if I did I misrepresent the book. It seems Truth-Telling to me, and so even the unpleasant becomes somehow transformed into Beauty. And then there is the sheer beauty of many, many lines by a wizened old Bard who never considered himself a "Beat" but a bohemian. He wants us to make it. So do I. So do you. Enough of the thick haze of impoverished imagination! Let us do a rear-guard action and...not be a part of it, and thereby forestall its extensions. You know what "it" is or seems? We still have time of useful consciousness, and maybe in 200 years this book will be a curious relic from the Dark Days, who knows?

How easy  it would be to dismiss the Bardic filtrations of the Unistatian mind in history, tuned in by Ferlinghetti, at 93, as the expressions of the old boho who feels his cherished hopes thwarted. It's far more serious than that. Look at the facts and then yourself in the mirror: is he just on a bummer? I think not. He's on to something Big, and that's precisely why we want to read this sort of poetry. Admittedly, in the artificial hierarchy of data-information-knowledge-wisdom, the last term is, as Robert Anton Wilson said, "private, not public, and somewhat more mysterious." But who doesn't crave some wisdom these days? I say Old Man Ferlinghetti shows it here in spades and you're a damned fool to ignore it.

If only for these meagre reasons, I urge The Reader to read this book. In a unique semantic sense, it's completely fantastic! (Especially the Unistatians: check this jit out.)


Anonymous said...

If he hasn't learned something to be
profound about by now, I'd be hard
pressed to think of someone who has
a better set of credentials.

Just by being there and talking to
those who passed by City Lights is
enough to observe the stream of US.

Great picture too.

michael said...

I sense wisdom in much of Ferlinghetti - especially after he reached the age of 80 - and I do think he sounded his barbaric yawp in an admirable way. (Could he possibly have MORE of this great stuff in him?)

Typical of the way my mind works: I had a bunch of notes on the movement of wealth and capital historically westward and "mildly northward," as Buckminster Fuller said. I was going to write about this and what Wilson called "neurogeography" and I had a few quotes and ideas from Leary on this, and planned to work in Jared Diamond.

Then I sat down to write and realized what I wanted to say hadn't felt like it had coalesced in my "mind" yet, then remembered I'd recently read the Ferlinghetti book and loved it, and its structure goes East-West in the Unistatian experience, so I re-obtained it from the library, re-read it again, bookmarked a few places, and ended up writing about that instead: "reviewing" the book, I guess?

I don't know how common this is with other writers, but almost everything you see from me - at least as that guy who writes "Overweening Generalist" - was almost never what I had planned to write. Some other (right hemisphere?) part of me takes over when I sit down to write, and I'm more often than not surprised that I ended up writing about one topic rather than another. Sometimes the intended topic and the one that ends up seem absurdly far apart...I think something's weird with the OG. He may "overshare" too.

I've sat outside City Lights (and sat in the old bar next door) many-a-time. I love eavesdropping in those spaces.